As the Winter Olympics draw to a close, there seems to be no doubt that they have been a success. By success, I do not mean Canada’s medal count, although it is impressive. I mean the use of the games as a marketing tool, a tool to send a message to the world. As we are now coming to know, these last two weeks have given unparalleled exposure to British Columbia and Canada that will help to boost tourism and investment for years to come. In recent years, of course, this concept has come to be known as event marketing. However, harnessing the power of humanity’s emotional connection with such games is not a new concept.
Many people do not know that the Olympics were not the only games in ancient times. Other centres throughout Greece such as Delphi, Corinth, and Athens had their own regularly-scheduled games and even artistic contests with prizes as valuable as for athletics. Some, like Corinth, were almost as big as the Olympics themselves. Often, the games were instituted ostensibly to honour a dead local hero. Alexander the Great, for example, created funeral games in Babylon in honour of his dead friend Hephaestion. They were no small potatoes. Alexander invited over 3000 athletes (our Winter Olympics had just over 2600)!
What all these games had in common was their expressed purpose of sharing the Greek cultural heritage, to bring Greeks together. Why? Because they never did have a formal “nation” and fate had scattered them literally to what were in those days the ends of the earth. From the huge crowds attending and watching our games, we know how well the Olympics still do this. But even the Greeks knew that more than mere patriotism could be squeezed from the emotion of athletic victory. Here’s an example.
In or around 278 BCE (Before Current/Christian Era), King Ptolemy II of Egypt began games called the Ptolemaieia in Alexandria, Egypt, in honour of his dead father, King Ptolemy I, one of Alexander’s generals. As with all the other games, he invited athletes and leaders from all over the world. In the inaugural games, he held what has come to be considered as the most spectacular parade in history, including anything since. The parade took at least an entire day to pass and displayed the wealth of the nation in pure gold (literally billions of dollars’ worth that included hundreds of gold prizes for victors), along with thousands of animals, mechanical marvels and floats, and a march past of over 80,000 soldiers. The purpose? To impress his adversaries with the power of Egypt. This was a political message, much like China expressed with the 2008 Olympics. In the case of the 2010 Winter Olympics, our real message to the world has been, “Come to work and play in beautiful British Columbia.”
We may not have owned the whole podium, but for two weeks we have certainly owned the media. That message has been received by the world loud and clear. Thanks, VANOC. You understand the power of athletic victory.
Job well done!